Massachusetts U.S. Senate candidate Elizabeth Warren can’t seem to untangle herself from the web of claims she has made about her American Indian heritage during her years as an academician and again during her campaign. An issue that may seem collateral to a race for the Senate has become the defining feature of her run.
Warren, of course, isn’t the only public figure to get caught in the quicksand of the new millennium’s self-branding fetish:
● Florida Senator Marco Rubio portrayed his parents as having fled Castro’s Cuba on the eve of the 1959 revolution. Rubio’s parents had left a few years earlier, unquestionably seeking a better life in America, but under less cinematic circumstances;
● Yahoo CEO Scott Thompson was forced to step down last May when he was discovered to have lied about having a degree in computer science;
● Senator Richard Blumenthal jeopardized his 2010 Senate bid by saying that he had been in combat in Vietnam when he had not (he had, however, served in the Marines);
● Author Greg Mortenson is alleged to have fabricated some of the more daring war zone adventures in his non-fiction books.
Are we experiencing an epidemic of “over-egging the pudding,” as the British say?
Surely, exaggerating one’s credentials and capabilities is an old phenomenon. From the Old Testament through the Greeks and Shakespeare, history is replete with misrepresentations.
While fibbing and bragging are ancient, today’s transgressors are getting caught because of the tension between two postmodern poles. At one end is the desperate need for personal differentiation in an age of self-surveillance where any non-entity can shamelessly become a pundit or “brand.” At the other end is the abundance of information — true and false — that is now available to us with the tap of a Send key or an anonymous email from a Kinko’s to a nasty reporter.
Today’s concoctions bring to mind the adventures of serial fabricator George Costanza. Among other deliberate misrepresentations, the “Seinfeld” character posed as the architect who designed “the new addition to the Guggenheim” (adding the flourish: “It didn’t take very long either”) and a marine biologist.
The main difference between Costanza’s fabrications and the others may be that he made this claim before the Internet boom. In the world of “Seinfeld” no one could type in “Costanza,” “Guggenheim” or the name of his fictional alter ego, “Art Vandelay,” into Google and check him out. Google was founded, after all, the same year “Seinfeld” bowed. The targets of George’s lies had to wait for him to blow himself up, which he reliably did.
In today’s climate, a fabrication or embellishment collides with the metastatic phenomenon of mainstream and online media, and becomes a trillion lies.
The more a data point snowballs, the harder it is to retract or characterize, especially since you are not only dealing with the original sin, but the metric effect of millions of “hits” calling you a liar. To make matters worse, these “hits” live on in cyberspace forever.
So why do successful, intelligent people vulcanize the truth?
There is a colorful Yiddish term, bubbehmeisah (BUBB-uh-my-seh), that means, literally, a “grandmother story.” It’s essentially the same thing as a “wives’ tale” or an urban myth, but it tends to have a personal angle.
Bubbehmeisahs serve two purposes, one psychic, the other strategic. The psychic benefit is that exciting personal narratives make the storyteller feel unique and important. In Warren’s case, she’s not just another smart white lady, she’s something cooler, a contemporary Pocahontas. (She may even believe this.) Her strategic objective was originally academic advancement in a competitive environment where ethnic identity greatly matters. Perhaps her more recent invocation of her purported heritage was to solidify her popularity with constituencies that have proven time and again to dig her act.